A Weekend in Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram

Noyna Roy

Last updated: Apr 3, 2017

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Driving down from Chennai to Pondicherry

After spending a  laughter-filled evening in Chennai at my aunt’s house, the thought of waking up early the very next day to travel to Pondicherry was a bit daunting. 
As we were leaving the city of Chennai, we passed a little fish market. The boats had just brought in the catch of the day. Fishmongers were calling out prices to buyers. There was a slum right next to it. When the Boxing Day Tsunami hit the shores of India, these slums had been washed away. So many years later, the houses were still in disrepair but at least they were better off than earlier. I felt the pain of it all again and said a small prayer. 

As the drive continued, we left the busy roads of Indian cities and entered the countryside. The drive was so picturesque that I didn’t notice the time flying by. The roads were empty, but now and then we would come across a lonely tractor riding to the market to sell produce. The bright cloudless sky was above us. The blue ocean travelled with us on one side and the paddy fields on the other. 

So Many Birds!

The trees lining the edge of the road provided shade from the bright hot sun. There were big water bodies all around, where I spotted very many birds. The storks were sitting in the water and fishing for their breakfast. The kingfisher was sitting on the telephone wire waiting for fish to swim to the surface of the water. By the sea, the seagulls were diving into the water, shrieking. 

These vast salt plans were formed as a result of the sea water evaporating 

Halfway through the car ride, we stopped at a salt pan. The seawater had evaporated to produce salt in the fields. Right next to the salt pans, we saw the gorgeous flamingoes. Flamingoes enjoy eating the teeny-tiny brine shrimp in the saltwater. The salt was piled up on the side. The salt crystals reflected the light from the sun, making the pile shine like jewellery. A pair of black-and-white kingfishers waited for us to leave before making their next move, while a Eurasian Roller looked on. 

Romping around the salt pans had made me thirsty. I wanted some coconut water. The coconut vendor had tied the coconuts to a rope and hung it on the tree. It was a very smart idea and kept them cool. The coconuts were bigger and sweeter than those in Goa. All through the route we saw coconut sellers. We also came across quaint, colourful temples surrounded by lotus ponds. I saw many statues of what looked, to me, like demons but on further enquiry discovered that they were idols of protectors.

Promenade and Villa Shanti

That’s me outside the French Quarters 

By noon we entered the busy little city of Pondicherry, also now known as Puducherry, which appeared to me like any other little town in India. Just as I was starting to wonder why Mom had brought us to this nondescript town we entered the beautiful colonial-era district of the city, called the French Quarters. The car entered a street that had a series of high-walled villas, arched windows and louvered shutters. We stopped in front of a beautiful grey building on Rue Suffren with humongous doors and a big sign saying Villa Shanti, painted on its all-white background. It was very elegant and very French. We entered Villa Shanti through a high-walled courtyard which had been converted into a restaurant. The décor of the restaurant was very tasteful and soothing. Leaving Mom to complete the check-in formalities at this exquisite 15-room boutique hotel, I took a table and started ordering. I was starving after the car journey! I ordered the tamarind and masala prawns. The menu was eclectic and foreign-sounding but the food that arrived was very well flavoured, beautifully presented Indian food. It was so divine that I had to order another portion. 

We went upstairs to our room. The wall with our bed had words written on it in Sanskrit in a gold font. Even though I could not read them, they looked beautiful. After unpacking, we lay down to rest, marvelling at how the former residents of this house had cleverly designed the villa to face away from the afternoon sun. My room window faced a large tree whose branches and flowers peeped in to greet me. 

For the evening we had a reservation at a restaurant called The Lighthouse @ Promenade on the beachfront. We walked by the sea till the sun set and then went to the restaurant. As we walked along the beach road, I spotted a big Gandhi statue. In the 1600s, the French used to have a jetty here. Today, the Gandhi statue greets the people who walk up to the jetty. Many kids were playing there; they climbed up one side and slid down the other. We saw some policemen in extremely attractive uniforms patrolling the streets. They had very interesting hats and many people took pictures with them, as did I. 

After the sun slipped down the horizon, we walked into the restaurant. It was on a rooftop facing the old lighthouse—a rather magical setting. But when we were presented with the menu, we saw it said ‘Valentine’s Day Dinner’ in big letters all over it. We had forgotten that it was Valentine’s Day and the usual barbeque menu would not be available. The menu consisted of dimsums and other Chinese food. Having just arrived from Singapore, we were in no mood for Chinese. We apologized and made a quick exit and summoned the driver to take us to a restaurant called Anjappar, in the Tamil Quarter. Anjappar looked very popular with the locals but was woefully uninspiring both in décor and food. We ordered some Chettinad food and I had some rose milk. Chettinad has a lot of spices in its food and is mainly non-vegetarian. The food was mediocre but the best thing was that the tablemats had a Sudoku and a crossword about Pondicherry which you could do while you were waiting for your food. The Sudoku was quite hard, but Mom solved it in less than ten minutes!

Auroville and the Matrimandir 

I made Mom a cup of English breakfast tea before we set out to see the Matrimandir in the famed Auroville. The drive was around half-an-hour long, through the village. On the way, we stopped at a small bakery called Aurobakery. It had delicious cinnamon breads and croissants. Outside the Aurobakery, there was a man selling jars of honey. On his cart, there were piles of honeycombs with bees still sitting on them! The honey from the honeycombs was dripping into a jar, which was kept below it. 

Fresh honey for sale by the roadside

Auroville was very peaceful and calm. We were told that we had to walk to the main part of the village. The walk was around a kilometer long. It wasn’t that hot because there were trees forming a canopy on top and protecting us from the hot sun. As we were walking, we saw these big stones on the side of the pathway with different varieties of flowers painted on them. Each had its own significance. For example, marigold was associated with the word perseverance. There were quotations right below the picture of the flower. My favorite quote was: ‘Whosoever is courageous can give courage to others, just as the flame of one candle can light another.Walking isn’t the only mode of transport to the Matrimandir. Older or specially-abled folks can take a bus that is provided for free. Residents and guests of Auroville can also cycle. I think the Ashram encourages residents to ride bicycles, as there is a separate path for the cyclists. 

When we arrived, we watched a short video about the Matrimandir. I especially loved the greeting that read, ‘Greeting from Auroville to all men of goodwill. Those who thirst for progress and aspire to a higher and truer life are invited to Auroville.

The beautiful and unique architecture of the Matrimandir

 It was really interesting to understand the spiritual reasons behind the building and the architectural manifestation of the same. After the introduction, we had to walk some more to the viewing point. The Matrimandir looked like a golden ball surrounded by lotus petals. The lotus flower was meant to symbolize peace. The garden was in construction so after completion, it would look even grander. I was amazed by the architecture. Mom said that many architects from all over the world came here to be inspired by this amazing community. After admiring the peacefulness of the place and taking lots of pictures, we took a bus back to the village. At the gift shop, I bought a beautiful white organic cotton dress and some handmade beaded belts. Mom bought some basil soaps and oils. 

It was hot, so we decided to go back to the Villa Shanti and have lunch. The lunch we ate consisted of unique things that I hadn’t had before. We ate zucchini crepes, masala prawns (my favourite!), chicken and fried potato salad and a keema- stuffed naan. The food was a medley of exotic flavors. Since we were exhausted, we spent the rest of our afternoon reading books and drinking tea in our room. 
Pondicherry Heritage Trail

At 5:00pm we went down to the lobby to find our guide, Mr Ashok Panda, the co-convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). INTACH helps restore old French homes or convert them into boutique hotels and cafes, like Villa Shanti.  

Mr Panda was a pleasant and articulate gentleman. We started with a walk to the Tamil Quarter. There was a big dirty drain between the French Quarter and the Tamil Quarter that was, we discovered, actually a storm-water canal. As soon as we crossed the drain, we could immediately see the stark contrast between the two areas. The French buildings in the French Quarter were restored and looked beautiful. They were repainted, had a uniform facade and had flowering trees growing around it whereas the buildings in the Tamil Quarter were looked like they had been built in the 80s. ‘It is as if you have walked into just another busy city in India’, said Mr Panda. 

The Tamil Quarter still had some houses that depicted Hindu architecture. Unlike the French houses, the architecture was very welcoming to pedestrians, namely the thinnais, semi-public verandahs with masonry benches. We toured Maison Perumal, which has now been converted into a hotel. I loved its mutram, the colonnaded courtyard, and the open nature of the living room. The stonework on the walls and the colourful tiled flooring were very appealing, as were the solid wooden columns that supported the structure. The doors and fixtures were so ornate that I quickly abandoned my appreciation of French simplicity for the warmth and magnificence of this Tamilian home. I wish the Tamil Quarter would be restored to its heritage character too. Ironically the INTACH office is in the Tamil Quarter.

We came across many of these beautifully crafted statues in Pondicherry 

The French Quarter, in contrast, was near the beach, and surrounded by either big mansions like the Governor’s residence, banks and churches, or beautiful streets with high-walled villas in different colours. My favorite streets were Rue Romain Rolland, Rue du Saint Laurent and Rue Dumas. On our walk, we learnt that the French left Pondicherry in 1954 whereas the British left India in 1947 and the Portuguese left Goa in 1961. The reason why the French left Pondicherry was because, after they lost Vietnam, they no longer felt the need for Pondicherry which was just a trading port and wasn’t as important to them. However there are still five buildings which are French-controlled like the École, the Alliance Francaise, the Cultural Centre, the Consulate and the Residence. 

Before going back to the hotel, we drove up to the front of the Governor’s house. It was huge! The governor of Pondicherry is also the Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. After the walk, we thanked our guide and got ready to go for dinner to a restaurant called Le Dupleix. It was just a five-minute walk from our hotel. We sat in the garden under the stars. I had French onion soup and grilled pork chops while Mom ordered a rasam and grilled prawns. Even though the food was delicious, I found the portion sizes a bit too big and ended up not having enough room to eat dessert. Whilst we ate, Mom told me the story of Lord Dupleix, the French patron of Pondicherry, who died a pauper in obscurity, as his government did not reimburse the private expenses he incurred towards the conquest of French Colonial India.

Chennai Via Mahabalipuram 

We began the day by packing our bags. It was time to leave and go back on to the East Coast Road to Chennai via Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram, as it is known today. Before we checked out, we walked down to Alliance Française and ate breakfast. Mom had a croissant and I had the best lemon and honey crepes I have ever had. They were thin and succulent. 

One of the most fascinating structures I came across- Krishna’s Butterball 

Two hours later we stopped at the very famous bas-reliefs of Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is an UNESCO world heritage site. The temples and bas-reliefs were carved into huge boulders during the reign of the Pallava Dynasty ranging between the 4th and 9th century. The bas-relief is a type of carving on the side of a granite rock. It was like a monumental painting which told many different stories all at once. Mom’s favourite carving was the bas-relief called Arjuna’s Penance. People believed that the five Pandavas had come to Mahabalipuram and that is why they had built many temples and homes for them to stay in. . There was also a little temple, which had a carving of an elephant. If you moved around and looked at it from a different angle, it became a bull. I was amazed by the creativity of this piece. But the thing I found most interesting was called Krishna’s Butterball. It was a rock, which was shaped like a ball of butter in the middle of the garden. It is said that it is so heavy that when the British came, they tried to move it using the force of six elephants but it still wouldn’t budge!  

The intricately carved Shore Temple 

One of the most famous temples in the area is called the Shore Temple. The Shore Temple was made out of granite in the 8th century. This temple consists of a vast, magnificent complex by the seashore with 5 rathas stone-carved chariots (I guess for the five Pandavas) with elephants. It reminded me of Hampi even though those temples were made in the 12th century, It is quite interesting to see the magnificence of the human effort that is interspersed all over India. 

We spotted this lighthouse while were were leaving the Shore Temple 

It was twilight by the time we soaked in the beauty of the Shore Temple to our hearts’ content. As we were leaving, we saw the old lighthouse light up as if bidding goodbye. On our way back, we saw the streets lined with statue shops. Our guide said that the statues were shipped to places all over the world like Japan, Germany and France. But I was too in my own world to pay much attention, thinking about all the amazing experiences of our on-the-spur weekend. What a great way to end our trip!


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